On the Satan
An initial exploration of the nature and identity of the serpent in Genesis 3
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made (Gen 3:1).
That’s all we’re told explicitly about this creature. It sounds like just another of the wild animals God had made and pronounced “good” in Genesis 1. However, as soon as I hear what this snake said to the woman, the creature becomes highly suspect: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” And by the time it responds to the woman—“You will not certainly die” (v. 4)—it is clear that the one speaking is an enemy of God.
The opening thrust of the serpent’s remarks is clear… his first words should not be construed as a question but as an expression of shock and surprise. He grossly exaggerates God’s prohibition, claiming that God did not allow them access to any of the orchard trees. Apart from this claim being unadulterated distortion, it is an attempt to create in the woman’s mind the impression that God is spiteful, mean, obsessively jealous, and self-protective. In addition, it cleverly provides Eve with an opportunity to defend God and to clarify his position, for by this one statement of the snake God has moved from beneficent provider to cruel oppressor (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, pp. 188–9).
But it doesn’t make sense for one of God’s creatures to be an enemy of God at this point. That concept and possibility is alien to the story so far. So, what’s going on? What or who is this creature?
A Note on Sources
In what follows, I seek answers to these questions in the work of four scholars: Bill T. Arnold, Terence E. Fretheim, Nicholas J. Ansell, and Michael S. Heiser.
- Arnold is one of my top sources on Genesis. His commentary on Genesis (in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series) follows an interdisciplinary approach, which brings a lot together for us. It’s also fairly recent, so it takes into account recent developments in biblical scholarship.
- Fretheim is one of my top sources, period. He wrote God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, one of the most helpful books I have ever read. He also wrote a commentary on Genesis (in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary series), so I’m interested in what he has to say about our subject.
- I haven’t read much by Ansell, but he wrote an essay that tackles the questions I’m asking here. The title of the assay is “The Call of Wisdom/the Voice of the Serpent: A Canonical Approach to the Tree of Knowledge.” Let’s see what his take is too.
- Heiser has become my top source on what I call the spiritual dimension of reality. His account of what’s going on in the spirit-realm fits very well with the narrative-world I’m finding in the biblical texts. Unfortunately, he doesn’t engage many important questions typically raised by my top sources, and neither do they comment on his work (except for Robert Holmstedt and Derrell Bock, who endorses it), which leaves me largely on my own trying to sift truth from error. Actually, Heiser has worked with David deSilva, which I consider a good sign.
Fretheim explains that “the text does not focus on the serpent per se, but on the human response to the possibilities the serpent presents. As such, the serpent presents a metaphor, representing anything in God's good creation that could present options to human beings, the choice of which can seduce them away from God” (p. 360).
That the focus of the text is on the human response, not the identity of the snake, that is clear enough in the story. And the serpent does seem to be symbolic (see The Bible and History). However, I don’t see how this creature could represent just “anything in God’s good creation that could present options to human beings.” This ignores the intentionality of the creature—which the text does not suggest as simply “showing options”—but specifically seeking that they transgress against their Maker. Tempting “options” aren't crafty and deceptive. Persons and intentional agents are. So my search continues…
Unfortunately, Ansell came to a similar conclusion. I also think there are methodological issues in his approach.
Whatever we decide regarding the identity of the snake, this statement seems to me a red flag on any treatment of the matter: “Satan seems to be identified with the serpent prior to the Fall of Adam and Eve in Wisdom of Solomon 2:24, but I do not consider this a challenge to my position as this text is not in the Protestant canon” (p. 37, n. 13). He’s referring to this: “For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23–24). Wisdom is a Hellenistic Jewish text written between the testaments and used by the New Testament writers.
In fact, David desilva explains that “Wisdom is perhaps the most important of the Apocrypha in terms of impact upon the early church during the most formative centuries of Christian theology” (Introducing the Apocrypha, p. 277). It influenced the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John, and the Letter to the Hebrews, for example. But “the most pervasive influence of Wisdom surfaces in the writings of Paul” (319). Something similar can be said about the intertestamental literature in general. There were theological and textual developments during the period between the testaments, some of which the New Testament legitimated. We can’t expect to understand what Jesus and the apostles were talking about if we dismiss the intertestamental literature. And if the New Testament writers took into account the intertestamental literature in their interpretation of Scripture, any Christian interpretation of Scripture that dismisses this literature is suspect.
With that red flag in place, let’s hear Ansell’s proposal. He sees a three-stage development in the biblical revelation of who the snake is:
In the first stage, the serpent of Genesis symbolizes a creation (or certain aspects of that creation) that is full of wisdom or revelatory potential. Originally intended as a gift and blessing to humanity that we were supposed to bless by our loving rule as imagers of God, this reality becomes cursed through our disobedience. (p.50)
We saw above how the wording of Genesis 3:1 does describe this snake as just another of the wild animals that God had created and pronounced “good” in Genesis 1. And this particular “creation” is said to be “crafty.” Given that I’m already seeing these accounts as symbolic in nature (although referring to events that in some sense did happen), I can see the snake representing something in creation that is full of wisdom and revelatory potential, but only as long as that something is a person—not a thing. And a person with a particular agenda in this story.
However, how is it that “this reality” (the snake) became “cursed through our disobedience”? If we can trace our disobedience back to the snake’s deception and its clear intention to make us do it, doesn’t it make more sense to see its “curse” as the consequence of its own actions? Snakes, along with the rest of creation, did indeed suffer the consequences of our disobedience. But this text clearly wants to explain something of what went on prior and leading to that disobedience—namely, this serpent’s role as malevolent instigator. This creature, whatever it actually represents, deserved the consequences of its actions, just as we deserved ours. Let’s not confuse matters here.
“In the second stage,” Ansell continues, “we meet ‘the Satan’ in the opening chapters of Job…"
Here, the Hebrew term is not a proper name, but refers to ‘the accuser’ in a law court who brings a case against Job, the defendant, in the hearing of the Judge, who is God. ‘The Satan’ does not represent outright evil; otherwise, God's tolerance of its presence would be hard to explain. I would like to suggest that in the Satan, we see a creation that has been abused by human sin and has thus become hostile towards humanity, even though it still maintains something of a positive relationship with God at this stage… At the same time, it is important to note that the Satan is not just doing its job or insisting on its covenant rights. Its cynicism, hostility, and destructiveness (compare the Satan in Zech. 3:1) point to a creation that has become profoundly twisted” (51).
So, according to Ansell, the Satan we meet in the story of Job has also been abused by human sin. Yet, this creature is clearly a spirit-being, one among others called “sons of God” in Hebrew (“heavenly beings” in the NRSV), who “came to present themselves before the Lord” (Job 1:6). This is what some scholars have come to identify in Scripture as “the divine council.”
I’ve only read so much on this, so I can’t comment much. However, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem that heavenly beings are suffering from the consequences of human sin in the way Ansell has come to understand it. They live in a different dimension of creation. It seems that all creation is affected in one way or another by any rebellion or sin in either realm, but Ansell’s description here doesn’t ring true.
In the third stage, we meet ‘Satan’ as portrayed in the New Testament. Here, its nature has become so identified with the role of the accuser or prosecutor that it has become a proper name (as in 1 Chron. 21:1). This created reality, under the impact of idolatry, has become so distorted that it loses the positive covenant bond with God and is ejected from heaven (see Luke 10:18, Rev. 12:9). An ambiguous reality in the Old Testament, this is now an outright enemy of God and his people. (p. 51)
It's not clear to me from this progression whether or not Ansell is identifying the snake in Genesis 3 with the Satan, so let’s let him explain it:
In the three stages that I have outlined, creation, inasmuch as it is caught up in human idolatry, becomes increasingly distorted by the growth of human sin until it becomes a power that is totally opposed to the coming of God's Kingdom. The ontological status of Satan in this model is that of an active reality that is external to human beings. This is not a figment of the religious imagination. Neither is it reducible to flesh and blood. But it is not a fallen angel. And it would not have come into being without us. (p. 52)
If the “sons of God” in the first chapter of Job do represent spirit-beings, which is almost certainly the case, then Ansell is clearly confused about the identity of Job’s Accuser. Such beings did indeed come into being "without us," probably long before we were created (cf. Gen 1:26, where the “let us make humankind…” most likely addresses them).
“The serpent, in this view, is seen as a good creature that symbolizes those aspects of creation that call us to wisdom. Through Adam and Eve's sin, however, it becomes seductive and deceptive, thus symbolizing a world that has been cursed by human evil” (52). Wait a minute, didn’t the snake deceive us? How is it that it became deceptive by our sin? Come on, brother, has the snake deceived you too?!
Why don’t we ask Michael Heiser next, since we were just wondering about the divine council, etc. He’s the expert in that aspect of things.
Here’s his explanation of the identity of “the satan” in Job, which sheds light on that term in the Old Testament as a whole:
The satan in Job 1–2 is not a villain. He’s doing the job assigned to him by God. The book of Job does not identify the satan in this scene as the serpent of Genesis 3, the figure known in the New Testament as the devil. The Old Testament never uses the word saṭan of the serpent figure from Genesis 3. In fact, the word saṭan is not a proper personal noun in the Old Testament...
Most of the twenty-seven occurrences of saṭan in the Hebrew Bible, however, do indeed have the definite article—including all the places English readers presume the devil is present (Job 1:6–9, 12; 2:1–4, 6–7; Zech 3:1–2). The satan described in these passages is not the devil. Rather, he’s an anonymous prosecutor, as it were, fulfilling a role in Yahweh’s council—bringing an accusatory report. The instances of saṭan in the Old Testament that lack the definite article also don’t refer to the devil or the serpent figure. Those occurrences describe either humans or the Angel of Yahweh, who is occasionally sent by God to “oppose” someone or execute judgment (e.g., Num 22:22–23).
The function of the office of the satan is why later Jewish writings began to adopt it as a proper name for the serpent figure from Genesis 3 who brought ruin to Eden. That figure opposed God’s choices for his human imagers. The dark figure of Genesis 3 was eventually thought of as the “mother of all adversaries,” and so the label satan got stuck to him. He deserves it. The point here is only that the Old Testament doesn’t use that term for the divine criminal of Eden. (p. 57)
So Heiser agrees with my other sources on this point. Genesis 3 is not talking about the devil in its reference to the snake. But neither is this character just as wild animal.
The point of Genesis 3 is not to inform us about ancient zoology or a time when animals could talk. We’re not in the realm of science by design. Genesis telegraphed simple but profound ideas to Israelite readers: The world you experience was created by an all-powerful God; human beings are his created representatives; Eden was his abode; he was accompanied by a supernatural host; one member of that divine entourage was not pleased by God’s decisions to create humanity and give them dominion. All that leads to how humanity got into the mess it’s in. ... This is how we need to think about the story of Genesis 3. An Israelite would have known that the episode described interference in the human drama by a divine being, a malcontent from within Yahweh’s council. (p. 74, emphasis mine)
Got it. But how do we make sense of later developments that came to associate the snake with the devil? And how do we make sense of that in relation to our reading of Genesis 3 in its own right?
Arnold can help us here:
The syntax of [Genesis] 3:1 marks a new subject and announces a new character. The identity of this serpent (nāḥāš, Hebrew’s most common word for “snake”) has posed a perplexing question for interpreters. Christian readers routinely identify him as Satan because of allusions to this text in the New Testament (e.g., John 8:44; Rom 16:20; Rev 12:9; 20:2). However, there is nothing in Israel's Scriptures that would equate the serpent with Satan, especially since ancient Israelites did not embody all evil in a single personage. The association with Satan in this text cannot be accredited to an earlier Yahwistic source or the final form of Genesis. Explicit equation of the serpent with the satan (“adversary”), or Satan, the accusing adversary of God, appears first in later Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic works (e.g., Wis 2:23–24; Sir 21:2; 4 Macc 18:8; Rev 1:9; 14–15; 20:2). … Our answer must therefore come from elsewhere. (p. 62)
Arnold only suggests one possibility, so I assume it is the one he finds most likely: “that the mythological figure behind the serpent is Canaanite Baal, appearing in the form most tempting to ancient Israel, that of a serpent” (p. 62, emphasis mine). This does sound right. Tell me more.
In this theory, the Garden of Eden reflects an old Canaanite myth of a sacred grove, with a tree of life, living waters, guardians at the entrance, and especially a serpent. Thus it is possible an ancient story has been demythologized in order to expose the real nature of Canaanite Baalism, and not only to expose it, but to universalize the experience for all Israel so that obedience to Yahweh’s voice and repudiation of Baalism becomes paramount for all. (p. 62)
This would actually fit quite well the Old Testament Israel I know. It also fits the picture that’s been emerging for me about the nature of Scripture, and of our text in particular. I’m not worried about what then happens to the promises of “Eden restored” in the Book of Revelation. If Yahweh promised, we can bank on it. It may just look different to what we expected.
It may be objected that such a reading runs counter to the explicit assertion of v. 1 that the serpent was one of the creatures ‘that the Lord God had made.’ How can the serpent represent the archenemy of true faith when it is explicitly introduced as created by God? But the objection misses the symbolic transformation of the Canaanite mythology. God has created everything, including even the insidious serpent, which some unenlightened Israelites are tempted to follow. The transformation is profound because the serpent has no special powers beyond his ability to lie, trick, and confuse. But even these powers are only available to him when standing (or slithering) before humans. Before God himself, his answer will be one of resolute silence (3:14–15). (pp. 62-63)
A Preliminary Conclusion
Taking it all together, then, it seems that the story in Genesis 3 is a counter-narrative that both informs God’s people about the beginnings of life and death on earth, and one that also demythologized the Canaanites’ sacred narrative—a story that Israel itself was prone to believe and slip into.
Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.” But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’” So Elijah went. (2 Kings 1:2–4)
We can probably relate. What sort of tales have we fallen into? See The Altars Where We Worship for some suggestions. Thankfully, a counter-narrative has already been written for us. All we have to do is find ourselves in it and try to stay there.
That larger counter-narrative—the biblical Story of reality—has developed in stages, in what I like to call “authorized developments.” There were various trajectories taken, represented by the different groups of Jews who lived through the intertestamental period. Some of these traditions that developed Old Testament concepts and themes were received by Jesus and the New Testament writers as legitimate developments. The fact that they are legitimated in the New Testament makes them “authorized developments” for followers of Jesus. One such development is the association of the snake in the garden with the Satan or the devil (Rev 12:9)—“the father of lies” (John 8:44).
According to the theory above, by Flemming Hvidberg (Arnold’s source), the snake is representing Prince Baal, or Bel Zebul—“Jahweh’s great adversary in the ancient struggle for the soul of Israel which is the theme of the whole of the Old Testament” (p. 288).
Bel Zebul. Where have we heard that name before?
Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul.” (Luke 11:14–18)
This Beelzebul, then, is almost certainly the “ancient serpent” from Genesis 3, the one “called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Rev 12:9). However, the name “Satan” was almost certainly not in the mind of the writer of Genesis 3. He was writing at a time in our Story when Baalism was the issue, and Baal (or Bel Zebul) seems to be who’s behind the snake figure.
And if the picture that’s emerging for Heiser and others regarding the spirit-realm is right, then behind this Baal there’s a real and active agent who is part of the spirit-realm but who operates in history. We know because the New Testament writers exposed him as the same deceiver who from the beginning has been leading Israel and the whole world astray (e.g., 1 Cor 10:19–22; Rev 12:9; cf. Gen 3:1ff; 2 Kings 1:2–4). He’s also the one whose work the Son of God came to destroy (1 John 3:8).
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Rev 12:7–9)
And so it seems that Hvidberg was right: “the old Jewish-Christian belief that the serpent is the devil is far more historically true than late Judaism and early Christianity could conceive.”
Notes and Sources
1. For more on the Satan, see my reflections on The Story of the Cross.
2. Nicholas J. Ansell, “The Call of Wisdom/the Voice of the Serpent: A Canonical Approach to the Tree of Knowledge,” Christian Scholar’s Review 31, no. 1 (2001): 31–57.
3. Bill T. Arnold, Genesis, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
4. David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002).
5. Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, and Mark G. Toulouse, The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
6. Terence E. Fretheim, “Genesis,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. I, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).
7. Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005).
8. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990).
9. Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015).
10. Flemming F. Hvidberg, “The Canaanitic Background of Gen. I–III,” Vetus Testamentum 10, no. 3 (July 1960): 285–94.
11. Iain Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017).
12. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).
13. Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 2015).